Managing Endangered Species on Military Lands

By: L. Peter Boice

The Department of Defense (DoD) is the third largest federal land managing agency in the United States, managing over 25 million acres of land on over 425 major military installations. DoD uses these areas to maintain mission readiness. Marine and estuarine environments are used to test vessels and submarine tracking equipment, evaluate missile weapons, hold shock trials on new ships and carry out training exercises. Airspace is used to train pilots and test fighter planes as well as air-based weapons systems. Combat training exercises, munitions testing, and deployment of weapons systems are conducted on land resources.

DoD lands are found in many different habitats across the country and contain rich and varied natural and cultural resources. Limited access due to security considerations and the need for safety buffer zones have protected these resources for decades from development and other potentially damaging uses. As a result, DoD installations contain some of the finest remaining examples of rare native vegetative communities such as old-growth forest, tall-grass prairies and vernal pool wetlands. Approximately 220 different federally listed species are known to occur on at least one DoD installation-the highest known density per acre of threatened and endangered species found on any federal lands. Many candidate species may be found on lands under DoD control. More than 200 installations provide habitat for at least one candidate or listed species.

DoD embraces its stewardship responsibilities for these valuable resources. However, underlying any management decision affecting DoD lands is the fact that these lands must first be managed for the continued use of military training and testing-a situation quite different from that of "traditional" land management agencies. This is manifested in DoD's three-part conservation goal, which is to support the military mission by: 1) providing for sustained use of its land, sea, and air resources, while protecting valuable natural and cultural resources for future generations; 2) meeting all legal requirements, for example, of the Endangered Species Act; and, 3) protecting compatible multiple use of these resources. The challenge for DoD is to balance the need to maintain its access to air, land, and water resources for current military training with the need to protect and manage these resources for all desired long-term uses.

Conflicting Management Requirements

Given the complexity of its management challenge, DoD has experienced occasional conflicts between the military mission and its legal mandate to protect threatened and endangered species. During the past decade, approximately 15 installations have needed to modify or restrict military training or testing to comply with the Endangered Species Act. Required changes have included actions such as modifications to training schedules, the temporary closing of specific areas, restrictions on the types of activities permitted, and improved environmental awareness training for troops using sensitive areas. Although these modifications have not been without cost, DoD has established a good working relationship with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service. Consultations have, consequently, resulted in solutions which generally meet both mission and species' needs.

Management of threatened and endangered species is likely to become a greater challenge for DoD for a variety of reasons. First, the number of species requiring protection will probably increase. Second, as military installations close and weapons systems become more sophisticated, demands for use of remaining training grounds will increase. Third, the lands surrounding many military installations have experienced rapid development over the past 50 years, resulting in many DoD lands becoming "islands of protection" in "seas of development." Lastly, there is substantial pressure on all federal lands, including DoD, to shoulder an increasing share of the responsibility to protect dwindling habitats and species. For these reasons, DoD is looking to develop regional partnerships that encourage shared responsibility for protected species management and recovery, which could reduce the potential for future restrictions on military operations.

DoD Ecosystem Management

DoD is adopting an integrated, ecosystem-based approach to conservation that allows the military greater flexibility in managing its lands. Rather than be tied to the limited objective of protecting individual endangered species, DoD prefers to emphasize the overall protection of existing groups of plants and animals. Emphasizing protection of ecosystems results in continued high quality management and care, and a more cost effective means of providing resource protection. Successful management in this fashion will ultimately release DoD from inflexible regulatory demands occasionally associated with protection of endangered species.

Mojave Desert Initiatives

DoD is embracing the principles of ecosystem management on a regional scale in California's Mojave Desert, DoD's premier training and testing region. The area houses several major installations, including the Army's National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Marine Corps Ground Combat Center at Twenty-Nine Palms, Edwards Air Force Base, and Naval Air Weapons Center at China Lake. DoD conducts most of its large-scale unit training exercises and major weapons testing at these installations. DoD also protects many important natural and cultural resources in the desert, including the endangered desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii), and has significant interest in the region's long-term sustainability.

To more effectively coordinate resource management goals and activities and provide for resource protection in the Mojave Desert, DoD has teamed with the Department of the Interior to collectively manage these lands. This collaborative effort allows each department to survey and inventory its lands, control soil erosion, and prepare management plans that recognize political boundaries but address biological integrity across these boundaries. An ecosystem approach will help DoD land managers and trainers better assess the quality of their lands, determine future uses, assess impacts beyond installation borders, and conserve areas that are rare and unique or harbor protected species. The Mojave Initiative will also provide DoD greater flexibility in the use of the Mojave for military activities.

Biodiversity Initiative

The Biodiversity Initiative, a two-year collaborative effort with The Nature Conservancy and The Keystone Center, is designed to enhance biodiversity management on DoD lands. The first product of this effort is the creation of the DoD Biodiversity Management Strategy, which covers three aspects of biodiversity conservation:

A second outcome of the initiative is the DoD Commander's Guide to Biodiversity which provides military commanders with a succinct description of why biodiversity conservation is important for DoD and the nation. Lastly, the Biodiversity Handbook for Natural Resources Managers provides practical information for use by DoD's managers. This initiative has increased the visibility of sound natural resources management in the Department of Defense.

Supporting the Military Mission

The support of installation commanders and military trainers is essential to the effective protection of threatened and endangered species on military lands. Because commanders control most local funding and land use decisions, DoD is placing increased emphasis on explaining to them how conservation activities directly support training and readiness. The key message is that protecting and maintaining the resources on training lands is essential for their continued use and makes good business sense. For example, sound resource management helps maintain natural landscapes for realistic military training now and in the future, and helps keep DoD in compliance with environmental laws.

The Army's Integrated Training Area Management (ITAM) program is a premier example of how the conservation program directly supports training uses. The ITAM program integrates military training, testing, and other mission requirements with the condition of the land and its ability to support mission requirements. It avoids unnecessary and irreparable damage to vital training ranges, and provides accurate assessments of land conditions and wildlife habitat to managers and commanders. ITAM has resulted in significant savings and increased mission carrying capacity at many Army training sites. Although an environmental conservation program, ITAM was transferred from the environmental managers to those charged with operations and plans in FY 1995. With ITAM at their disposal, installation commanders can be assured that their mission is not hindered and that proper land management will accompany continued intensive training. (The ITAM program is described in more detail in the last section of this article.)

Another important conservation program which supports the military mission is the Bird Air Strike Hazard (BASH) program. BASH is aimed at minimizing collisions between military aircraft and birds. DoD has established monitoring stations across the country to determine population trends. Additional data come from DoD's network of state-of-the-art weather surveillance radar sites. Next-generation radar (NEXRAD) detects birds during migrations and provides information about their numbers, general direction of flight, and altitude. Knowledge of where birds travel, nest, and feed helps DoD avoid problem areas, and therefore saves lives and avoids the destruction of valuable airplanes. This is not a small problem - from January 1992 through June 1993, the Navy alone reported 27 major mishap bird strikes that cost an estimated $98 million.

Multi-Service Projects

Although many endangered species issues are installation-specific, some are best addressed by a coordinated, multi-Service effort. This is best demonstrated on Guam. The Air Force, Navy, Guam Division of Aquatic and Wildlife Resources, Department of the Interior, Department of Agriculture, and many others have joined forces to control the brown tree snake (Boiga irregularis), an invasive species. The snake has wiped out almost all of the native birds of the island, as well as many indigenous reptiles and bats. It also causes costly power outages by climbing power lines, and its mildly venomous bite is a serious threat to infants and young children.

DoD has sponsored a major research initiative on the brown tree snake, with technical assistance from the Department of the Interior. A major focus has been the development and testing of snake exclusion areas which could, if successful, permit the reintroduction of certain species currently extirpated from the island. Other efforts include work on an effective trap design for capturing snakes, the testing of attractants that maximize trap success, the testing of fumigants that kill stowaway snakes in cargo, and monitoring of snake populations. Educational materials are also being developed for and disseminated to military and civilians associated with cargo handling, as well as other interested individuals.


DoD has taken an active role in developing overall goals and guidelines for management of the Department's lands. Natural resource managers within each sector of the military (e.g., Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines) face many of the same issues as traditional land management agencies, with the added requirement that they must integrate these issues with military mission requirements. The degree to which they succeed can be critical to DoD's ability to continue essential training and testing activities on its land, air and water resources. The following articles look at specific land management efforts on Army and Navy held lands, and the next issue of the Endangered Species UPDATE will cover efforts for Air Force and Marine installations.

U.S. Navy Lands

The Navy manages 182 installations on more than 2 million acres of land. These facilities are found in 25 states, as well as in Puerto Rico, Guam, and other western Pacific islands. Installations near wetlands, riparian areas, and coastal areas contain a substantial number of listed and candidate species. Those located near urban centers, more than half of which are less than 1000 acres, are also subject to significant outside pressures.

More than 100 different listed species are known to occur on at least 92 Navy installations. To help manage these species and important ecological areas, the Navy manages five recognized ecological reserves and six formally designated critical habitats. Each year the Navy invests directly more than $3 million for the protection of these threatened and endangered species.

Not surprisingly, the Navy's endangered species management program tends to focus on marine and coastal species. Protection of these species is vital to ensure the Navy's compliance with the ESA, and thus its continued access to ports, access routes, and test areas.

Manatee Protection

At Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Georgia, the Navy has mounted a major effort to protect the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus). After a Navy tugboat accidentally hit a female manatee and her calf swimming near Kings Bay in 1990, the navy initiated a project to design a propeller guard for its powerful C-tractor tugs. These specially designed vessels are used to handle submarines during arrival and departure. The goal was to protect manatees from being pulled into the powerful propellers. When the first guard was installed in 1991 it was found to not only be effective in protecting manatees, but also in improving the efficiency of the tug. Similar guards have been installed on all tugs and other small vessels in the bay.

The Navy has also developed additional protective measures at Kings Bay. Places in and near Kings Bay where manatees are known to congregate have been declared as no-entry areas. Speed limits have been posted. Artificial water discharges have been eliminated to discourage the manatees from coming near where boats operate. The Navy has also begun a manatee watch program to monitor the animals.

A similar program to protect the manatee is underway at Roosevelt Roads Naval Station, Puerto Rico, one of the world's largest and most advanced naval training ranges. In addition to awareness programs, Navy resource managers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists are working on a pilot program to use a satellite to provide information on manatee behavior and movement.

Whale Monitoring

The Navy is providing marine scientists a powerful tool from the Cold War for learning more about whale numbers, behavior, and movements. The tool involves the Navy's formerly top secret, Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) a series of underwater listening devices on the ocean floor. The system was built to track Soviet and other submarines by the sounds they make in the water. In order to successfully track submarines, the Navy had to distinguish and filter out the underwater sounds made by whales. In the process, the Navy learned to identify six whale species-blue (Balaenoptera musculus), bottlenose (Beradius bairdii), bowhead (Balaena mysticetus), fin (Balaenoptera physalus), humpback (Megaptera novaeangliae), and minke (Balaenoptera acutorostrata)-by the distinct sounds each makes. This information was not needed to detect submarines and, thus, was not used at first. Now, however, these listening devices are being used to study whales.

The Navy is also monitoring whales from the air. An airship is being used to observe endangered Northern right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) off the coasts of Florida and Georgia, the mammals' only known calving area. Information is being collected to reduce the potential for the right whales to be struck by ships or become entangled in fishing gear. This voluntary, collaborative effort between federal, state, and local agencies and non-profit organizations is helping to protect the whale while allowing human activity in the area to continue.

Regional Planning-San Diego Bay

The Navy is leading the development of an integrated, interagency, bay-wide management plan for one of its most heavily used areas, the San Diego Bay. This effort is being undertaken in coordination with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the San Diego Port Authority, and the private shipping community. To support this effort, the Navy has initiated a series of studies to determine what species use the bay and the status of the bay's natural habitats. This information will allow the Navy to better plan for and integrate its in-water training operations, and assignment of new ships to home ports, with preservation of the bay's valuable but vulnerable natural resources.

A specific example of the Navy's management of endangered species in the San Diego Bay area involves the endangered California least tern (Sterna antillarum browni). The Navy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are implementing a Navy-initiated agreement which helps both agencies achieve individual program goals and, at the same time, provides enhanced management for the tern. Each year, the Navy provides a single list of in-water construction projects planned for piers and dredging in San Diego Bay, which the Fish and Wildlife Service reviews for impact to the terns. Together the agencies plan specific management goals for least tern nesting colonies on three Navy bases, as well as special projects which the Navy performs to benefit the terns. The Navy provides centrally-managed funds for the tern management and projects, rather than tying piecemeal mitigations to small projects. The Navy gains the ability to plan its projects without delays, and eliminates the need for many individual informal Section 7 consultations. The Fish and Wildlife Service gains better oversight of one of California's most endangered species. The least tern gains intensive and consistent management at some of its largest remaining nesting sites in San Diego Bay.

Old Growth Forests

Naval facilities are not usually located in the midst of a forest, but in one case, the Navy is helping to preserve one of the last stands of low-elevation Sitka spruce forest in the Pacific northwest. In 1950, the Navy purchased land to construct Naval Radio Station, Jim Creek, Washington, a key communications line between naval shore commands and U.S. submarines at sea. However, the former owner retained the logging rights to the forest, which contains Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) and western red cedars (Thuja plicata) 800 to 1500 years old, 250 feet tall, and ten feet in diameter. All but 225 acres had been previously logged, and in 1990 a timber company proposed to log Jim Creek's remaining tall trees. Recognizing the forest's ecological significance and its importance to the base's water supply, the Navy purchased the logging rights to the remaining stand, thus preserving a vital piece of our natural heritage, and potential nesting habitat for the threatened marbled murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus).

Vernal Pool Restoration

Vernal pools are shallow wetlands formed during the rainy season. The pools at Naval Air Station Miramar, California, which represent 80% of the remaining pools in San Diego County, are home to the endangered San Diego mesa mint (Pogogyne abramsii), button celery (Eryngium spp.), and the San Diego fairy shrimp (Branchinecta sandiegoensis). In one project, Navy resource managers and local scientists used aerial photographs and field inspections to identify sites at Miramar where vernal pools once existed but had been damaged before the Navy bought the land. Thirty-three of the pools were then restored, by carefully excavating fill material without damaging the hard clay underneath. Seeds, soil, and other fill material were then added to the restored pools. The soils, which had been collected from vernal pools in an off-base area that was about to be developed, held seeds from the mesa mint and button celery, as well as eggs from the fairy shrimp. Both seeds and eggs often lie dormant for months or even years awaiting the next rainfall. This successful project added significant vernal pool habitat without impacting the military mission.

U.S. Army Lands

The Army manages nearly 12 million acres of land on approximately 120 major installations across the United States; this is almost half of the total acreage under the management of the Department of Defense (DoD). In addition, more than one million acres of mostly state-owned lands are used by the Army National Guard. The Army utilizes its land to provide realistic conditions for training and testing. Large blocks of land with varied natural terrain act as the soldiers' "classroom."

Because successful learning is so closely linked to the availability and condition of the land, the Army, perhaps more than the other Military Services, has needed to adapt to increasing pressures on these lands. With more than 85 listed species known to occur on at least 63 Army installations, increased management requirements for protected species have placed greater pressure on lands where there are few listed species. Additionally, changes in the military, such as more sophisticated weaponry, the return to the United States of many forces previously deployed overseas, base closures, and increased development pressures on adjacent non-military lands, have also increased the demand on the Army's remaining lands.

Endangered Species Management Plans

Each year the Army invests directly more than $7 million for the protection of threatened and endangered species on its lands. The Army specifically requires each of its installations with endangered animals, plants, or habitat to develop an Endangered Species Management Plan that protects and supports the recovery of these species and their habitats. A manual, designed to streamline the implementation process, provides a template for commanders to follow when developing these plans. The manual stresses the importance of having installation commanders, trainers, and environmental staff work together to establish and implement a plan. Guidelines are broken down into eleven different steps; examples include developing a complete inventory of the installation's lands and species; assessing military requirements and integrating them with the needs of the protected species; establishing monitoring programs; coordinating with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service; and, fulfilling NEPA requirements.

Integrated Training Area Management Program

The Integrated Training Area Management (ITAM) program is critical to the management of natural resources at more than 60 Army training installations. ITAM integrates five major elements to provide Army land managers with a comprehensive approach to land management:

ITAM results in at least four long-term benefits for Army installations. The program seeks to provide realistic training experiences which enhance Army readiness, fighting capabilities, and soldier safety and survivability. It also works to avoid extreme environmental damage and loss of land through controlled land allocation and advanced rehabilitation techniques. A focus on management over the long-term reduces the costs related to compliance with environmental regulations. Finally, the program provides a credible foundation from which to make decisions about training requirements analyses, base realignments, and acquisition actions.

One location where ITAM has successfully been adopted is Orchard Training Area, Idaho. The training area supports Army National Guard units from the Pacific Northwest with a year-round heavy armor and tank school as well as a helicopter battalion. The area around Orchard claims the nation's densest population of raptors, which are protected under the Snake River Birds of Prey Area, a designated protected area established in 1980. Fragile land surfaces and at least one candidate plant species are also managed under ITAM. As a result of ITAM military trainers are able to identify suitable training areas and to restrict ground disturbing activities to previously disturbed sites. Training schedules are now adjusted to times and locations which will minimize the impact to the vegetation and soils in the designated training area.

Technical Research Priorities

The Army is at the forefront of land-based research on protected species and other natural resource issues. Priority issues being investigated by the Army include the impact of military operations on protected species, especially blast and helicopter noise, smoke, and obscurants, and maneuver disturbances; standardized inventory and monitoring protocols; the mitigation of DoD-unique impacts; monitoring and management in danger zones; and the characterization and evaluation of threatened and endangered species habitats. Efforts at Fort Carson and Fort Bragg provide examples of how the Army is addressing management challenges of specific species.

Success Stories

Fort Carson

The greenback cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarki stomias), a federally listed threatened species, is the only native Arkansas River drainage salmonid that still exists. Fewer than 700 pure natives to the Arkansas River remained in existence in 1978. Fort Carson has coordinated since 1981 with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Colorado Division of Wildlife on a recovery effort for the trout. In 1981, Fort Carson filed a change of use for an existing water right and constructed a broodstock pond for rearing the trout. Initially, 40 greenbacks were transported to Fort Carson's pond. Eggs and fish from this pond have been used to establish reproducing populations within national forests. Due to the overall success of the recovery program, Fort Carson now has a limited catch and release program for this species which is sanctioned by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

In addition to the greenbacks, 34 Arkansas darters, which are listed as a state threatened species, were introduced into the same pond. Since this initial release, Fort Carson biologists have established five other broodstocks from the original population, with no detrimental effect on military training. As a result of these efforts, Fort Carson has been identified by the State of Colorado as the source for darters in the state recovery program.

Fort Bragg

The Army has a number of important training bases in the southeast, and the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis) has presented perhaps one of the most challenging management issues for Army owned lands. This challenge has been greatest at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Fort Bragg experienced a number of significant training restrictions, including the temporary closure of several firing ranges, because of conflicts with the woodpecker. Bragg has adopted a three-fold management strategy to address these concerns:

In addition, Fort Bragg is working with surrounding private landowners to encourage the voluntary adoption of "safe harbors" for the woodpecker on their lands. The landowners would be under no long-term obligation to protect the woodpecker, however, in the meantime, Bragg would benefit from a wider distribution of healthy woodpecker colonies.

The events at Fort Bragg prompted the Army to conduct a review of all its installations in the southeastern United States. In coordination with the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army has reviewed existing endangered species management plans, evaluated the viability of existing populations, and developed standard management guidelines for the woodpecker for all its installations. The guidance document provides information on such management tools as prescribed burns, protection of nesting trees, and control of understory growth.

Literature Cited

The Keystone Center. Keystone Center Policy Dialogue on A Department of Defense DoD) Biodiversity Management Strategy: Final Report. January 23, 1996.

The Nature Conservancy. Conserving Biodiversity on Military Lands: A Handbook for Natural Resources Managers. June 1996.

_______________. DoD Commander's Guide to Biodiversity. April 1996.

L. Peter Boice is Director of Conservation within the Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense. He can be reached at 3400 Defense Pentagon, Washington, DC 20301-3400. A second article that highlights efforts by the Air Force and Marine Corps to protect endangered and threatened species is featured in the September 1996 issue of the ESU.

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